Denis Fahey: John Miller Andrews, historic Orangeman

An Irishman’s Diary

On July 12th, 1933, John Miller Andrews, the local MP and labour minister in the Northern Ireland parliament, told an Orange rally at Finnnebrogue near Downpatrick that he wanted to scotch a rumour: It wasn't true that 28 of the 31 porters at Stormont were Catholics. Only one was a Catholic and he was temporary.

The comment was intended as a statement of fact, rather than a boast, but it has dogged his memory; probably unfairly because he had no record of sectarianism, and although he was an Orangeman and a future grand master, he attended the funeral of the nationalist MP, Joseph Devlin, in 1934.

Andrews was born 150 years ago on July 17th, 1871, to a family of Scots origin who could trace their roots in Ulster to the 17th century and had been heavily involved in the linen industry since the 18th century in and around the village of Comber, Co Down.

His lineage also included William Drennan, a founder of the United Irishmen, and the author of the bitter ode to the young Presbyterian farmer William Orr who had been hanged after being falsely convicted of administering a seditious oath to a soldier and another poem, When Ireland First Arose, which contained the phrase the Emerald Isle.


John was the oldest of five children. The second brother, Thomas, was apprenticed to Harland & Wolff and rose through the ranks mainly because of his ability, although the fact that an uncle was married to Eliza Pirrie, the sister of the chairman, Lord Pirrie, didn't harm his prospects. He was one of the principal designers of the Titanic. He sailed on that ship's ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912 and went down with it. Survivors remembered him urging passengers to enter the life boats rather than trying to save himself.

The third brother, James, became a Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and the fourth, William, was one of the best-known personalities in Irish cricketing circles during the first half of the 20th century.

John became a member of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1910 and in 1918 he helped to found the Ulster Labour Unionist Association with the object of ensuring that the unionist working class wouldn't pivot to socialism,

In June 1921, he was appointed labour minister and was praised for the efficient distribution of £500,000 for relief works in Belfast, the only positive result of the Craig-Collins pact of March 30th, 1922.

He was promoted to finance in 1937 but when he became prime minister in 1940 following the death of James Craig, he was almost 70 years-old, partially deaf, and lacking the vision or energy to face the challenges of the war.

Belfast was considered safe from an attack by the Luftwaffe because it was so far north, and when the bombers arrived in April and May 1941, the city was almost entirely unprepared. It had only five anti-aircraft batteries and a tiny number of air raid shelters and very few of the children had been evacuated. Almost 1,000 people were killed, 100,000 homes were partially or completely destroyed and many thousands suffered great hardship. The government was widely blamed for its inertia and incompetence and there was a rumour, not entirely unfounded, that it was overly concerned with protecting Edward Carson’s statue at Stormont.

Winston Churchill's decision not to introduce conscription in the North was also seen by unionists as a failure of their government and backbench MPs finally revolted in April 1943, forcing Andrews' resignation on May 1st. He was replaced by Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough, but he remained leader of the party for three years and continued to represent mid-Down, unopposed, until 1956. He was succeeded there by his son Jack, a founder member of the pro power-sharing Unionist Party in 1972.

Unlike the other prime ministers of Northern Ireland, Andrews didn’t receive a peerage. Churchill was dissatisfied with his government’s contribution to the war effort and, particularly, his failure to deal with industrial disputes that disrupted aircraft production, while his relations with the treasury were often turbulent. His insistence on parity of treatment with Britain in welfare matters was his major achievement and it benefitted both sections of the community, but it went largely unnoticed.

After his death in 1956 his remains were buried in its cemetery in Comber, in land provided by one of his great-grandfathers.

This article was edited on July 26th, to correct the name of one of the Andrews brothers